Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad Critical Essays

Ann Petry


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Petry wrote Harriet Tubman out of an acute interest in the subject of slavery. “It is my belief,” she once said, “that the majority of textbooks used in high schools do not give an adequate or accurate picture of the history of slavery in the United States.” In creating a biographical picture of Tubman, Petry sought to understand the history of slavery through the experience of an individual who suffered under and fought against it on the most visceral levels.

The controlled focus of Petry’s treatment is striking. She creates cinematic effects by shifting the focus slowly and carefully, by following her characters’ actions closely, and by clearly establishing the many settings of the story. In the first chapter, she specifies Tubman’s early surroundings by establishing the region of the country, the lay of the land, the look of the plantation, the atmosphere of the slaves’ compound, and, finally, the interior of the type of small hut in which Tubman was raised. Petry elaborates on the work habits, health concerns, and constant threat of violence from cruel masters that characterized the slave’s life. This mass of information creates a clear vision of Tubman’s surroundings, offering a rich departure point for an understanding of her mind.

Petry does not make a great effort to replicate the syntax, grammar, and phonetics of the slaves’ dialect in dramatizing scenes, nor does she attempt to penetrate Tubman’s mind and speculate on the development of her inner life. Rather, Petry evokes Tubman’s personality and character through her actions and writings. The portrait is flattering but not without objectivity and balance. Tubman’s character is reflected in the gravity of the external dangers that she constantly braved. Equally, Petry provides frequent reminders of the internal...

(The entire section is 751 words.)